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West Words

A Poet's Passion Illuminates the Craft


What is arguably the most haunting first line of poetry in the 20th century or, perhaps, any century--"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving--hysterical naked"--was composed by Allen Ginsberg in a Nob Hill apartment at 1010 Montgomery St. in San Francisco in the summer of 1955.

"I thought I wouldn't write a poem but just write what I wanted to write without fear," Ginsberg once recalled, going on to describe how the opening passage of "Howl" was "typed out madly in one afternoon, a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing . . . awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin's walk, long saxophone-like chorus lines I knew [Jack] Kerouac would hear."

Such are the flashes of light and moments of insight that illuminate the pages of "O Powerful Western Star: Poetry & Art in California" by Jack Foley (Pantograph Press, $12, 248 pages), an anthology of writings and musings, letters and speeches, radio interviews and performance pieces, offered both in print and in a spoken-word recording on an accompanying compact disc, by a man who is himself one of California's literary luminaries.

Jack Foley is a writer and a publisher, a poet and a poetry critic. He hosts a radio show devoted to literature on Pacifica network's KPFA-FM in Berkeley. He is a contributing editor for Poetry Flash, a literary review based in the Bay Area. He contributes literary criticism to the online publication the Alsop Review. Foley brings clarity and authority, vision and passion to everything he has to say about "the despised and neglected art of poetry," as he puts it.

"Perhaps no recent writer has done more than Foley," insists Dana Gioia in the introduction to "O Powerful Western Star," "to foster a serious and informed critical conversation about West Coast literature."

Foley is hardly a provincial when it comes to poetry, and he invokes Homer far more often than, say, Jack London or any of the other literati associated with California. But he seems to understand that his perspective is necessarily defined by the place from which he views the literary landscape. Significantly, one of the glories in his book is a timeline that traces the signal events and leading lights of California arts and letters over the last half-century, starting with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth's first book of poetry in 1940 and running up to the turmoil that plagued KPFA last year after staffers protested a management shake-up and were locked out of the station, protests that Foley describes as "the biggest in Berkeley since the Vietnamese War."

Indeed, Foley seems to have an instinct for picking out the defining moment, whether in a single poem or a whole generation of poets. Thus, for example, he shows us a particularly eccentric poem by e.e. cummings, a seemingly random assortment of syllables and punctuation marks, and then he points out "the exact point at which letters turn into words."

As we have seen, he allows us to witness the very moment of creation of the definitive Beat poem, "Howl." And he invites us to visit the Batman Gallery in San Francisco, where art and music and poetry bounced off the walls during the tumultuous years when the Beat movement of the '50s morphed into the counterculture of the '60s.

"The avant garde has not only ceased to exist," observed Kenneth Rexroth at the time, "it's jumping all over the place."

"O Powerful Western Star," too, is a kind of jitterbug, a mad dance through not merely decades but several centuries of art and poetry. At one point, he quotes the 17th century poet John Milton--"Books are not absolutely dead things but do contain a potency of life in them"--and, at another point, he repudiates the dead poet: "In our time, books have become, precisely, dead things," insists Foley. "The opinion ventured in these essays is that writing is in a state of crisis."

Yet Foley is far too passionate about the power of poetry to write it off: "At the heart of Western poetry," he writes, "is a split, a confusion, a multimedia situation which is never resolved but which remains in a continual, and at times enormously creative, state of tension." These words, offered to describe the "state of crisis" in writing, nicely describe Foley's book.


"Foley's Books: California Rebels, Beats & Radicals" (Pantograph Press, $12, 256 pages), a companion volume to "O Powerful Western Star," is a collection of Jack Foley's book reviews, articles and interviews, most of which first appeared in the online magazine the Alsop Review, which is published at

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